Archive for the ‘Volume 6’ Category

On Max Brooks, as promised

Like most of the media I’ve loved and internalized, the oeuvre of Max Brooks can be as shallow or as deep as you want to make it.  It speaks volumes to his skill as a writer that I’m able to ask, Is the message of World War Z ultimately conservative? Environmentalist? Nihilistic? None (or all?) of these? Who’s to say?—it’s up to the reader’s own unique attitudes and interpretation to decide.

Unlike a lot of the other post-apocalyptic media being produced these days *coughAMCWalkingDead*, Brooks actually addresses healthy long-term survival approaches for when the SHTF in his works, and I’m very glad that he continues to comically preach his message of zombie PREparedness at universities around the country.
Of course, everybody always just focuses on the ‘what to use to kill zombies’ chapters—and then becomes disappointed when he explains how M-16s, AKs, and rocket-propelled chainsaws aren’t ideal.  Want to have some fun? Hand the ZSG to a twelve-year old boy and see if he picks up on the multipurpose survival knowledge that could see him through hurricanes, earthquakes, or civil unrest.  He won’t, because it’s The Zombie Survival Guide.

But look beneath the surface, and it seems that Brooks’ overall blueprint in both the ZSG and WWZ is to form self-sufficient and sustainable communities out of the wreckage of the old world. Or maybe that’s just how I read it; maybe I’m seeing what I want to see.  Like I said, it’s up to the reader.

Unlike the victims who populate most other zombie media, Brooks suggests a proactive approach to survival, which essentially boils down to the old adage ‘Leave early, go far, stay long’.  He recommends putting together a team not—like everyone else seems to want to—of supercommandos, but of prepared, well-trained individuals with skillsets suited to self-sufficiency—doctors, blacksmiths, farmers—well ahead of time, and taking this team to a remote, predetermined destination far from civilization at the first sign of trouble.

One thing I especially love about WWZ is how timely it is, incorporating “modern fears of terrorism, biological warfare, overwhelming natural catastrophes, climate change and global disease.” As Brooks has explained in various interviews,

“I think the zombie craze is very tied to the times we’re living in. The last time we had a zombie craze was the 1970s, and that was a time of anxiety, a time when people really felt like the System was breaking down politically, economically, socially, even environmentally; there really was this feeling that “it’s not working anymore”, and people were really scared, and they wanted to explore their apocalyptic fears but they didn’t want it to be too real. …. I think we’re living in very uncertain times right now…there’s such anxiety, and we keep getting slammed. And so much of the problem seem so big, and we feel so powerless.  Who knows what a credit default swap is? I don’t!”


Although published in 2006, Brooks foresaw our Great Recession, the election of our first African-American president, and private space companies like SpaceX. In addition, he peppers the novel with wonderful satirical critiques (he is the son of Mel Brooks, after all) of modern society. Our celebrity-obsessed ‘reality’ TV culture, the corruption of Big Pharma, and the hubris of the Three Gorges Dam all get raked over the coals.  By poking fun at lots of Big Ideas (like the fact that whitecollar Americans can’t do anything for themselves anymore, or that our militaries are always fighting the previous war, or that our globalized, import-based economy has neutered the US&A), he effectively exposes the precipice upon which our modern world stands.

Of course, just because Brooks’ world is nearly overrun with the walking dead doesn’t mean that everything becomes primitive; Brooks still sprinkles high technology into his postwar world.  The depleted oceans are crossed on futuristic ‘infinity ships’ powered by solar cells and saltwater (or some such phlebtonium), modern dirigibles dot the skies, and civilian spacecraft taxi astronauts to the International Space Station.

However, what really speaks to me in Brooks’ writings is how DIY and decidedly un-hi-tech his recipe to defeat the undead is: go back to basics (“Everything had a kind of retro feel to it”). Tactics? Straight outta the nineteenth century: marching in two ranks, or ‘reinforced squares’. Weapons? Nothing tacticool, just a semi-auto rifle with a wooden stock “like a WWII gun”, and a glorified head-cracking shovel.
Simple, Efficient, and with a healthy worldview behind it, Sustainable.

On Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery’

Happy Midsummer, everyone! Because my current gig leaves me cut off from the outside world for weeks at a time, I wasn’t able to get this posted up on the Solstice exactly, but it’s close enough. As one of the major points of the circular solar year, high summer is one of those times that’s good for sacrifices and ensuring balance in nature. And so, here’s some analysis on one of my favorite short stories.

(A full-text copy of the story can be found on the Reading Materials page. I highly recommend you read it before continuing.)

For starters, from the first time I read it I’ve always thought that The Lottery was set in Britain, not America—the term ‘village’ is rarely used on this side of the Atlantic to denote a small town—as I find it hard to believe that Americans would have maintained a sacrificial ritual for time out of mind (which is not to say that the sacrifice’s purpose isn’t filled by something like say, our wars) without an existing cultural precedent. On the other hand, Brits (and plenty of other civilized Old World groups) have been stoning, hacking, garroting, burning, and drowning people as sacrifices for time out of mind, or at least about as long as they’ve been growing food, it would seem.
So, it was a nice bit of serendipity that I first came upon Ms. Jackson’s short story right around the time Old Croghan Man and Clonycavan Man (a particularly well-preserved pair of Irish bog bodies) were discovered, and while I was starting to read Frazier’s The Golden Bough. So when my lit teacher asked, ‘what’s it all about?’, I already had Sacred Kings on the brain and could pretty easily explain agricultural-fertility ritual sacrifices. (The Lottery is not—as the teacher I was subbing for (when I started writing this back in May) had apparently taught her classes—about population control. Which is funny, because it almost could be: as a civilized agricultural society, food surplus is bound to happen, and with that comes increased population growth; more food, more people, more people, more food, rinse, repeat. It’s simple ecology, folks).

Anyway, in preparing to teaching this class, I found this question on a ‘Lottery’ study guide:
“This story satirizes a number of social issues, including the reluctance of people to reject outdated traditions, ideas, rules, laws, and practices. What kinds of traditions, practices, laws, etc. might ‘the lottery’ represent?”

Answer: at its core, the lottery represents nothing less than our culture’s most destructive, long-standing, and unquestioned practice—our civilizational experiment fueled by totalitarian agriculture, and everything that comes along with it. Yes, it might also be applicable to more recent or smaller-scale issues facing society, but look big-picture, folks; don’t expect things to change if you can’t find the bars of your cage.

In the course of the story, one character in particular spoke to me, leaping off the page and spewing ignorant bitterness and hatred for people who live differently. Here’s a good point to recommend the 1969 short adaptation of the story (featuring the film debut of a very young Ed Begley, Jr.!), because their Old Man Warner really brings the character to life. His sharp, crooked teeth and hollow black eyes combined with the extreme close-up framing his face brings something animal-like to his performance:

Pack of crazy fools,” he said. “Listening to the young folks, nothing’s good enough for them. Next thing you know, they’ll be wanting to go back to living in caves, nobody work anymore, live that way for a while. Used to be a saying about ‘Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon.’ First thing you know, we’d all be eating stewed chickweed and acorns. There’s always been a lottery,” he added petulantly.

“Some places have already quit lotteries.” Mrs. Adams said.
“Nothing but trouble in that,” Old Man Warner said stoutly. “Pack of young fools.””

In the story, the character of Old Man Warner represents the unbroken and unexamined tradition of the lottery, and with it civilization and the ideas held by 99.9% of the population, victims of what Daniel Quinn calls ‘the Great Forgetting’.

Knowing the lottery’s purpose (an agricultural-fertility ritual sacrifice), Old Man Warner assumes that to abandon it would be to automatically return to an uncivilized state.
Furthermore, he somehow intuits that the uncivilized way of life is connected to ‘work’, or rather a lack thereof. In my experience, there seem to be two conflicting views of uncivilized life promoted by pro-civilized folks: that it is either nasty, brutish, and short, in a state of continual worry about where the food’s going to come from, or that it is the complete opposite, and that everybody just lounges around eating jerky all day. Neither is completely correct, however.

Regarding Warner’s quip about chickweed and acorns: these undomesticated foods are simply gatherable edible gifts from Mother Earth not requiring a sacrifice—unlike the civilized foods produced by man’s sweat and toil—and are therefore considered inferior by the biased Warner to the corn of the lottery. And are we surprised? Since the earliest Neolithic rumblings (only much later recorded in Genesis), agriculturalists in Our Culture have been told  that they must work, by the sweat of their brows, for their food; to get things for free—or at the very least, for minimal work—is the way of ‘lazy’ Injuns and other uncivilized folk. And even though the majority of people in our culture no longer directly work the land for their food, this notion is no less true.

To quit the lottery, as Mrs. Adams suggests, is to symbolically quit civilization—which is apparently an idea for young people, like the failed revolutionaries of the 1960s, or the OWS crowd. The big question then becomes—can you quit the lottery without going back to eating acorns?

Old Man Warner’s last lines “It’s not the way it used to be. … People ain’t the way they used to be.” further suggest that his fear of change runs to his very core. In him we see the bluepills who are—in the words of Morpheus—so inert, so hopelessly dependent that they will fight to the death to defend the only way of life they have ever known, because their culture has raised them to think, to believe, to know, that theirs—theirs and no other—is the only right way to live.

Aside from the bitterness of Old Man Warner, one other particular passage piqued my interest:
…at one time, some people remembered, there had been a recital of some sort, performed by the official of the lottery, a perfunctory. tuneless chant that had been rattled off duly each year; some people believed that the official of the lottery used to stand just so when he said or sang it, others believed that he was supposed to walk among the people, but years and years ago this part of the ritual had been allowed to lapse.”

In other words, Jackson has just described the idea of ‘priest’ in its most stripped-down form, presiding as intermediary between this world and the other. As the ritual has been forgotten over the years, the position has become secularized. As I re-read this passage, it occurred to me that having a priest officiating over the Lottery is the only difference between a murder and sacrifice.

According to an interview, Jackson’s original intent in writing the story was simply to set a violent ancient rite in the modern present to “shock the story’s readers with a graphic dramatization of the pointless violence and general inhumanity in their own lives.”
Pointless violence and general inhumanity? Sounds like a spot-on description of the modern, fast-food, disconnected-from-the-Wild-and-each-other, self-medicated-with-technology-and-mindless-violent-entertainment way of life to me.

Finally, it’s interesting to consider the fact Jackson wrote the story in 1948, on the heels of the most senselessly and incomprehensibly destructive period of civilized warfare in human history, and right at the beginning of the period that would see our civilizational experiment (and all of its side-effects) get turned up to 11.

How-to: a DIY Bug Box

Well, it’s summer now, and for many of us that means bug season! There are few better ways to instill a love and respect of the natural world in your younglin’ than letting him or her collect bugs in summer. Here are instructions for a quick and easy Bug Box you can make yourself out of recycled materials.

What you’ll need for one box:
Materials:
a board (I used pine.)
¼” luan plywood.
A machine screw and a nut to fit.
Some window screen/hardware cloth
Staples
Scraps of webbing

Tools:
*Various saws—you can go modern and use a chopsaw, bandsaw, and a hole saw, or go traditional and do the whole thing with hand tools (takes longer, probably more rewarding). I used power tools, because I had a couple of these to crank out and not a lot of time.
*Small nails and a hammer, or a brad-gun
*A heavy-duty stapler/staple-gun
*A rasp/file
*Sandpaper
*wood stain or oil (optional)

To begin, take your board and measure out three sections, one for the base and two for the ends of your box. My finished box is 10” long, so I cut an 8 ½” section for the base. The two smaller sections will form the ends of the box; mine were 4” long. Use a chopsaw, circular saw, chainsaw, whatever.  My chopsaw had a coarse blade in it, so the cut edges were kind of splintery at this point. Clean them all up with a file and sandpaper.

I hate squares. There’s no shape more indicative of our culture’s obsession with controlling nature, so I make my bug boxes with rounded ends. It’s a bit more work, but I think it looks much more attractive.
So, to make your end-sections round on top, you’ll have to lay out a semicircle. Get creative here—I found that the diameter of a pint tub of sour cream was the same width as the board I was using. Find something round, and trace it onto both pieces.Cut off the excess on both sections, and then (depending on how closely you followed your line) hit it with your rasp/file/belt-sander so that it looks nice and smooth. Clean up the edges with sandpaper.
Rinse and repeat for the other short section.One end is going to need an opening so you can put the bugs inside. I used a drill press with a 2-¼” holesaw. When you lay it out, remember to go up from the bottom at least the thickness of the base. Cut out the hole somehow (this is probably the hardest part for those of you doing this with hand tools), and clean up the opening with sandpaper.
Once you have your opening, you’ll want a door to keep your critters inside the box. Find something round that’s maybe ½” wider in diameter than your door-hole (I used an aerosol can), and trace it onto your ¼” luan plywood. Add a ½” hump at the top, and cut it out, cleaning up the edges with your rasp/file/sandpaper.
Now it’s time to attach it to the box. Get the door lined up where it needs to go over the door-hole, and drill a small hole into the middle of the hump, going through the thick piece; this is where your hardware will go to let the door open and close.  Put a bolt or machine screw through the hole, and thread a nut on the back. I like to keep it a little loose so the door swings freely—but don’t worry, we’ll make sure the door isn’t too easy to open in a bit.
Now it’s time to assemble. My pine board wanted to split, so I went ahead and drilled some pilot holes. Slather some wood glue on the ends, and nail the rounded sections to the base with some small brads.
Here’s the point when you can—if you choose—add some wood stain or oil or something to dress up the wood.  Once you get that out of the way, time to add some screen to keep your bugs in! I used hardware cloth which is easily cut with tin-snips. The size of your screen is determined by the size of your box, so the only tricky part should be measuring the end pieces: a flexible measuring tape used for sewing works great. Add ½” on all sides, fold that under, and staple it onto the box starting from the long sides. Don’t put a staple at the top of the round pieces just yet.

At this point, you should have a perfectly satisfactory bug box. Congratulations! But it could probably still use some finishing touches, especially if you’re making it as a gift for a younglin’. First, something to keep the door closed. Here’s where your webbing comes into play. Cut a piece as wide as your board was, and staple it on either side so that it covers the bottom ¼” or so of the door.
Second, a young naturalist-in-training needs his hands free to swing his butterfly net or write in his notebook; naturally, what this box is missing is a shoulder strap. Cut a length of webbing a foot or two long, fold the ends under, and staple it onto the tops of the rounded end pieces (see the first picture).

Now, you have a very nice box perfect for filling with fireflies to make a lantern, or collecting grasshoppers for eating later in the summer, or just examining our six-legged brothers in the community of life. Enjoy!

On ‘The Hunger Games’

HungerGames

So, I caught an opening day matinee (these days I pretty much only see current movies on opening day, or not at all—in theaters, at least) of the hottest Hollywood property, and for an adaptation, I was pretty pleased with how it came out.
I said I wasn’t going to see it until I read the book first, and I’ll admit, I cut it pretty close—resorting to piracy and acquiring a copy four days before the release. There’s really no excuse for this procrastination, as I’ve been hearing positive things about it for almost two years now (first brought to my attention by Linda Holmes in what must’ve been the first episode of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour).
(For what it’s worth, I’ve noticed something weird that happens when my first reading of a work is a pirated electronic version. The page count might be the same, I might recognize some character names I’ve heard about, but if there are a few typos, I’m always paranoid that I’ve been duped and I’m really reading a bootleg pdf of someone’s fan-fiction based on a trailer. It’d be a cruel joke to be talking to someone and saying, ‘Yeah, remember when so-and-so did such-and-such?’, only to be stared at as if you had two heads and hear, ‘Erm, that never happened’. It’d be like finding out that the folks you call Mom and Dad aren’t really your parents. Or something like that.)
But luckily, it seems that the copy I found was the real deal, and I zipped through in two sittings over about nine hours. This seems to have been the case with everyone else who’s read it. What can I say?—it sucks you in, just like a good book should.
And so: first, some general spoiler-y things I found worthy of comment, and then I’ll discuss it a bit in eco-, survival-y terms too.

I.
*Like I said, I was pleasantly surprised how faithful the film was to the source material; for the most part, departures were more omissions than outright changes, and the few additions actually helped to clear things up.

*I breathed a sigh of relief at the minimalistic opening title. Plenty of should-have-been-epic films have been ruined by traditional, complete credits over the opening scenes (*cough*chroniclesofnarnia*cough*).

*I tired of Gary Ross’s shaky camerawork within about the first five minutes. Thankfully I think it smoothed out somewhat as the film progressed.

*The inclusion of the Truman Show-like control deck was good—I always like scenes that show spatial relationships between characters in a landscape, and they helped clarify things like the firestorm and the mutts later on.

*By the end of the film—despite her beauty and complete competence with the role—I was kind of tired of looking at Jennifer Lawrence. I know she’s in like, every single frame but I felt like she only had two or three expressions. Also, nice to see both of the leads are from Kentucky. Represent.

*Stanley Tucci continues to be an absolute chameleon.

*The requisite time compression (the Games stretch over maybe three weeks in the book, versus maybe one week in the film) meant that there wasn’t as much time for the relationship between the two leads to evolve and mature, which meant it simply didn’t have the nuance of the book. But then again, it’s a movie; what did I expect?

*I found the aesthetics of the weapons used in the Games to be fairly unattractive.

Specifics:
*Aside from the aforementioned Gamemaker scenes, the only invented scenes I noticed were a few underwhelming bits with Donald Sutherland’s president, and a few powerful minutes of a rioting District 11 following Rue’s death.

*Ross decides to close the film with some brooding shots of Sutherland looking resentful or vengeful or something unpleasant. I haven’t read the second and third books, so maybe this is foreshadowing for later, but I think first acts of film trilogies work best as standalones. Let’s focus on wrapping up our protagonists’ plot threads properly, and save the changes in political environment for the start of film number two.

*Rue’s death got me pretty emotional. As the smallest and most childlike of the Tributes, her death hit me surprisingly hard, especially given its fidelity to the book.

*Even though it snagged a PG-13 rating, the film managed to retain the brutality of the book, using a ‘less is more’ approach to the violence, especially in regards to the ‘bloodbath of hacking’ that opens the Games.

*The mutts were handled pretty well, as being able to see their creation/insertion into the arena was clearer than how the book dealt with them. In the book, the last-minute nonsense about them having the eyes of the fallen Tributes (or were they supposed to be the Tributes themselves, reanimated in dog-form? I’m still not sure what was meant) was generally weird and unnecessary.

*Picky: I had a hard time with the branch the trackerjacker nest hung from—I didn’t really believe Katniss could’ve sawed through something so thick in the time shown. From the book’s description I was picturing a branch maybe a few fingers thick, not the five-or-so inches in the film.

*Nitpicky: I didn’t like that the Arena’s ceiling was blank at night, instead of showing stars and such. If it’s supposed to approximate the real world, while still giving the Gamemakers complete control of the environment—which we are shown they have—why no stars? It just seemed kind of lazy.

In all, it was really quite well-done, and as far as adaptations of books go, this might rate just below Jurassic Park for me. And if the hype is anything to go off, this year’s ‘PG13 violent scifi movie about strong women opening at the end of March’ will do much better than last year’s Sucker Punch.

II.
So, this trilogy’s protagonist is named Katniss. In the book, the author explains that this comes from a particular aquatic plant with arrowhead-shaped leaves, and then goes on to describe with familiarity the process of gathering the edible tubers (uproot them with your toes, and collect them as they float to the surface). Well, I’d never heard of any plants named Katniss before, but I sure know a description of the genus Sagittaria when I read it. I guess it’s an inside joke to those who know their wild edibles, that the main character—whose standout trait is her mad archery skills—is named after the Arrowhead plant. I have to wonder if Collins would’ve named her protagonist Wapatoo if it had been a male.

Anyway, I had hoped that the film would showcase any kind of survival skills. Silly me, I guess I forgot that Hollywood movies can’t be educational AND entertaining, because I was sadly disappointed:
No mention or depiction of wild edibles (only fictional, toxic ‘nightlock’ berries).
No medicinal plants.
No knots.
No firestarting.
And not even any water purification (at least the book mentioned using iodine tablets).
And I’m dubious about the whole ‘cake-decorating skills translate to camouflage skills’ angle.
So, bleh.
However, I still have to hope that this movie will at least get people (and women in particular) interested in archery and other outdoorsy activities. I know it certainly inspired me to finally finish the osage selfbow I started a couple of years ago.

Anyway, the society depicted in the book/film is especially depressing to me; it’s like my worst nightmare come true; it’s why I get nervous when people start talking about rebuilding. This is a world that has been rebuilt post-collapse, and yet is still functionally the same as ours; it’s still a Taker model of life: the 1% are still the ones holding power, the food is still under lock and key, and the 99-percenters are still—for lack of a better term—slaves to a system; in Panem it’s just more transparent.
(In my notes I had something about ‘stop watching’. This could either be a call for people to turn off the ‘reality’ tv programming that inspired the book (which would be a good start), or more likely, some kind of metaphor for enacting societal change by turning your back on what drives the society.)
To borrow from Buckminster Fuller, until we as a society can imagine a new way (which might actually look like an old—think tribalway) of organizing and governing ourselves “that makes the existing model obsolete”, our post-collapse world will likely look an awful lot like Panem.